Rant

Written by Simon Vickers in 2004…

I first encountered phonetic symbols in the seventies while working in France as a salaried translator, when I was asked to stand in for the English teacher. They seemed to make a lot of sense to me, and I got interested in the the subject. What I have, however, noticed is that they have never actually become very widely used. They have remained in an academic backwater and have never really achieved mainstream acceptance (indeed, many dictionaries still use homegrown re-spelling systems for representing sounds).  There are, I think, two main obstacles to the more generalized use of phonetic transcription (or “phonemic” as the pedants will have it). Little material is available in phonetics and the symbols that currently pass as the official ones for representing the sounds of English are odd, illogical and unattractive. I propose to remedy this situation.

According to an early book on phonetics that I read, the symbols first used for phonemes were those that could easily be made by adapting the keys of a typewriter (by inverting letters etc.). The trouble is that, although this may have been convenient at the time, it has resulted in a non-optimal and non-intuitive character set being adopted. Maybe the upward-pointing “v” represents “uh for up”?

Furthermore, for unexplained reasons, the “official” character set has grown more complicated over the years. The long and short versions of the vowels have been illogically changed, with the long version retaining the colon-like length mark, but the short version being represented by a new unEnglish character. For instance, instead of the long-i and the short-i proposed by O’Conner in “Better English Pronunciation” (first published in 1967), there are now three versions, the dotless i, the dotted i and the i with a length mark. The dotless i is very hard to read when placed next to an “n” or or an “r” or when two occur together with serif characters (nɪ, rɪ and “ɪɪ” respectively), and to me it looks wrong. Furthermore, none but true believers can really hear any difference between an “ɪ” and an “i” (the subject of endless discussions). And in the different publications available, it is sometimes stated that the “i” is not a real phoneme but is one that can be interpreted as “ɪ” or “i:” as desired, and sometimes that it is a strong version of “ɪ”.  Frankly, this change made since O’Connor’s book seems to me to be pointlessly pedantic. I have a theory that the proponents “happi” and the “happee” had a terrible row, and the above system was a compromise to quell it. Be that is it may, it seems to be me to be far simpler, more logical and much easier to type to use double vowels for long versions (though possibly offensive to academics), and so have just a single vowel-symbol to remember. And anyway, why is a length mark now needed, if the short versions of vowels are now represented by completely different symbols? Also, what is the point of using the exotic “ʊ” and “ɒ” when the good old u and o are available and will do just as well? Why use the Greek “θ” when the old-English “þ” (the one mistaken for “y” in “ye olde”) is going begging? And, frankly, the “gelded inverted question mark” now used to represent the glottal stop seems to say a lot about its inventor; why give up the immediately-understandable plain old apostrophe?

My impression is that, failing to expand, phonetics is growing inward on itself, resulting in this sort of useless complexity of interest only to the academics and those touchy about their non-standard accents.

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